President Donald Trump agreed Friday to end the five-week-old partial shutdown of USDA and other major departments and agencies, essentially bowing to demands from Democrats that the government reopen while negotiations on border security continue.
Under the agreement, USDA, the Interior Department, FDA, EPA and other departments and agencies for which fiscal 2019 spending bills have not been enacted yet will be funded through Feb. 15 by a continuing resolution.The departments and agencies are expected to be fully reopened on Monday.
Trump signed the stopgap bill into law Friday evening after the Senate and then the House passed it by voice vote.
Over the next three weeks, the House and Senate will negotiate with the White House on a fiscal 2019 spending bill for the Department of Homeland Security.
Trump said Friday at the White House that if he doesn’t get a “fair deal” on his demands for border wall funding in the DHS bill, the government will either shut down again after Feb. 15 or he will declare a national emergency to fund the wall expansion. “We really have no choice but to build a powerful wall or steel barrier,” Trump said.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said later on the Senate floor, “I genuinely hope this process will produce something that is good for the country and acceptable to both sides.”
Following the president’s announcement, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue issued a statement thanking the “thousands of USDA workers who stayed on the job to offer as many of our normal activities as we could.”
He said the department “will prepare for a smooth reestablishment of USDA functions.”
There was no immediate word from USDA as to when agencies that have been closed would reopen and when agency web sites would be updated.
Trump said that workers in the affected departments and agencies would receive their back pay “as soon as possible.” They will have missed two straight biweekly paychecks as of Friday.
The president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Association, Jim Mulhern, immediately sent a letter to Perdue urging him to quickly implement the newly overhauled commodity support program for dairy producers, Dairy Margin Coverage. The program's expanded coverage, which is targeted at smaller producers, is effective as of Jan. 1, but the department still must hold a signup for the program, which was included in the 2018 farm bill enacted just before the shutdown began in December.
The shutdown stalled implementation of the farm bill, and starting Dec. 22 closed much of USDA except for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, whose meat and poultry inspectors are required during government shutdowns, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which had been paying staff through program funding.
Concerns had been growing about the impact on farmers. On Jan. 17, half the local Farm Service Agency offices reopened temporarily to deal with existing loans and tax documents. On Thursday, FSA offices reopened nationwide to offer a broader array of services, including processing of applications for the Market Facilitation Program and operating loans.
Major reports that farmers and traders rely on, including the monthly World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates, were not issued during the shutdown.
The head of a food safety consulting firm, Andrew Lorenz, president of We R Food Safety in Menomonie, Wis., told Agri-Pulse this week that the shutdown was creating significant stress for FSIS inspectors, with the potential for disrupting meat processors. Facilities cannot legally slaughter animals without inspectors present.
Lorenz said inspectors, most of whom are on the job, should "be congratulated” for their work during the shutdown. Some, however, have not been showing up. The reasons include legitimate illness, frustration at not being paid, or a lack of resources. “How do I get 40 miles to work when I don’t have any money and the car’s out of gas?” Lorenz asked, rhetorically.
The Food and Drug Administration delayed, but then re-started, inspections of facilities that produce foods considered to be of relatively high risk for contamination. Unlike FSIS, which regulates meat and poultry safety, FDA does not provide continuous inspection of food facilities but rather periodically checks plants to ensure they are operating properly.
The chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., defended the president's agreement to reopen the government without the $5.7 billion in border wall funding he has demanded.
Trump "is sticking by his commitment to keep our communities safe and has assured me that nothing will deter him from accomplishing that goal. His resolve remains steadfast," Meadows said.
But House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., suggested the deal showed the five-week shutdown was unnecessary. "It is sad that it took 35 days of inflicting pain and misery on Americans for President Trump and Republicans to come to their senses and agree to this solution, but it is better late than never," she said.
(Updated at 9:35 p.m. with CR signed into law.)
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